How Old Are My Characters…?

So it’s a question which has been put regularly on this blog, and which I haven’t answered because… well, I kinda kept getting distracted, I guess… pretty feeble, but true…

How old are my characters?

I’ve been surprised by how widely the views differ on this, and perhaps more interestingly, why they differ on this.  The producer of the film (there is a producer, this does not, I hasten to add, yet guarantee there will be a film) calmly assures me that Matthew Swift, one of my main protagonists, is in his early twenties.

“Are you sure?” I asked, a little befuddled by this.

“Absolutely.  It’ll sell much, much better.”

One or two other readers have offered a similar view of Swift’s age – not based on how old he might actually be, but based on how old I was when I wrote the first book.  (It was my third year at LSE, so what… 20, 21?)  I’m really not sure about this assumption, as it seems to imply that I’m not in a hurry to write anything except what I know.  Whereas, as often as not, I go to great length to write my characters as far from what I know as I possibly can, as much to protect myself from over-exposure as for the sake of the narrative.

 

The simple truth of the matter is, I don’t give Swift’s age in any precise detail, at any point in the book, and there are a few sensible reasons for doing this.  Firstly, I don’t see why it’s that important.  In some novels, the age of a character is vital – there’s one in particular, currently sat on my editor’s in-tray, where it’s narratively essential – but that’s another story.  He doesn’t read very young, I think, nor does he read especially old, but inhabits that grey area in between fickle youth and cynical age where, if you want to, you can imagine pretty much whatever you want and it doesn’t necessarily have a huge impact on his character.  I suspect that this greyness is an extension of my own bugbear on this theme – who cares how old I am, if my words and my deeds are tempered not so much by time, as by who I am?  I’m pretty sure that when I was 15 I thought that drowning puppies was a bad idea, and frankly time hasn’t altered that belief.  Sure, my voice has changed with the passing of years, and so will Swift’s, but would it really make the heart of his character different if the words he spoke were in the mouth of a 25 year old, or a 40 year old?  I’d hope not…

Secondly, with long running characters, as Swift is certainly becoming, there is a danger in inflicting too precise an age upon them.  Look, for your best example, at the Simpsons.  After the decades it’s been running, the kids should have grown up and moved on, yet they remain frozen in time.  I’m not saying any of my characters should or shall ever remain frozen in time, merely that imposing a very precise age immediately makes it something you have to address and deal with, and I’m not yet sure that’s something that’s hugely important to the books.  One day it could be very interesting to see Swift get physically older, maybe even start taking out a pension, should he live so long, but in the mean while it’s not of huge narrative importance, so I try not to muddy the water by discussing it.

Finally, it’s good to have a few options open.  Once you specify a character’s exact age, there is a general implication of an exact backstory behind it.  Sure, Swift has a backstory, and an extensive one, but it is something to be unfolded in drips and drabs and which, frankly, hasn’t yet been of much relevance to the stories told in the Urban Magic books.  Nor am I in a tearing hurry to unfold it, as telling it all at once is a little silly unless it adds something more to the story.  The trick, it seems, is to approach your chosen area with absolute determination, but always leave patches of grey on the periphery where yet more ideas may develop, and Swift’s exact age falls very much into one of those peripheries.  The question whenever you give information about a character is why - why is this important?  And if it is important, what are you going to do with it?  Swift changes and develops over the books, his character evolves, but that evolution has very little to do with his age and a lot to do with stuff happening at him that’s beyond his control.  Until the question of time becomes a vital one in his life, I shall therefore continue to keep his precise age in something of a grey area, simply because I don’t yet need to nail it, and when I do, I’ll have a very, very good reason…

15 Comments:

  1. I always kind of thought that Matthew was around 4. I think it’s been around that long since he returned with the angels and (in my opinion) that is far more important than how old his body appears to be.

    Ok, that’s a bit of a flip comment but, I haven’t ever thought about how old he is.

  2. I have read him as closer to 30 than 20, so not really “early” twenties.. There’s enough going on in his life for it to have taken him that long to get where he is.

    On the other hand, some of that does assume he did normal things like go to uni, or even finish secondary. As it seems, he was likely picked up by Robert Bakker when he was around 15? So maybe he was around 20 when killed and is thus relatively “early” twenties still.

  3. Lorraine Robson

    Maybe it’s just because of my age, but I always thought of Swift as being about 28 when he was killed, and therefore being now about 31/32 That is, saying that he came back from death at with his body not having aged. The Blue Electric Angels are about four, as a physical being, but as sentient beings, as old as the telephone! So, how old do I think Swift/Blue Electric Angels are? Well, how long was Swift dead? Add that to how long the angels have been physical, and that’s, what, 9?
    Just my opinion! I’m fairly sure my maths is miles wrong, as is my theory, but, hey, that’s just my theory!

  4. If I’d thought about Matthew’s age at all, I put him at around 30 ± 2 or 3.
    Of course, how coming back from the dead, possed by the BEA’s, affects his ‘physical’ age, is a matter of conjecture. I mean, does he actually ‘age’, like we do?
    If so, is that ageing process affected by the presence of the Angels? Does Matthew age at a different rate?
    And even more importantly, who would play him? Always a fun topic of conversation with a drinking buddy down the pub; who should play certain characters in favourite SF books should they make a film.
    I’ll have to give this some thought, you’ve got an interesting cast of characters, Kate, and these things shouldn’t be rushed. ヅ

  5. I always pictured Swift in his thirties, kind of like Harry Dresden. Early twenties seems extremely young, considering how jaded and tired he sometimes seems.

  6. I never really cared about Swift’s age. But now you’ve mentioned it, I do find myself wondering whether his age should be referred to as BBEA (Before Blue Electric Angeled) and PBEA (Post Blue Electric Angeled).

  7. Do you think Matt Smith could play Matthew Swift?

  8. Thistle, that’s actually not a bad suggestion. He has the degree of controlled madness, or ‘unhinged-ness’ that Matthew has, and which he shows off very well as the Doctor, going from daffy, jokey mateyness to being someone that backing slowly away from, smiling and nodding, while glancing over a shoulder for the nearest exit, would be very expedient. Yes, I think he was sort of who I had in mind, but it wasn’t crystallised fully.
    Good call

  9. I personally always had the vague assumption that Swift was in his thirties but looked a bit older because he’s always haggard–tired, dirty, running for his life, etc.; it just kinda fit regardless of actual timeline…

  10. Oh gosh, I can’t agree with Thistle and AdrianH on this one. Matt Smith? I don’t know… Matthew Swift is surely a dry comedian, not a crazy bouncy comedian. Admittedly, I haven’t seen Matt Smith in much other than Doctor Who so maybe I’m not as well informed as I ought to be to comment on this?

    And… well, Matt Smith /looks/ strange, doesn’t he? No offense to the guy but his face is not what I imagine when Matthew is described as looking like a normal, somewhat scruffy, everyday bloke.

  11. I agree with Danica, on Matt Smith’s appearance, but he can be moody enough to play Swift.

  12. I have to agree that Matt Smith is really not at all right for Matthew Swift. I do agree with the consesnsus though on a quick headcount that Matthew Swift has a feel of being 30 +/-.
    One thing I am very pleased about is that there is much more of Matthew Swift’s story to come out and I would love to be old and grey and reading about Matthew being old and grey and claiming his pension. That would be perfect. Too many good Urban Magic book series end too season for my liking.
    I hope it is also okay to say that this is one of the best written series of books I have ever read, Urban Magic or otherwise, and I have read a lot of books in my years.
    Keep writing, Kate.

  13. It might be my age, but I always thought of Matthew as being in his early 30s. As for how he looks; I sort of figured him as looking rather like Martin Freeman, although at this point Martin’s probably too old to play Matthew. I haven’t seen the Doctor Who episodes with Matt Smith (does it give away my age too much if I say Tom Baker was the first Doctor I watched?) but just from the pictures, he’s not how I imagined Matthew. But anyway, Kate, I do hope they make a movie (and that it’s a good movie!). I’ve enjoyed the books so much, and having finished Minority Report I’m having withdrawal symptoms, and I hope another book comes out soon!

  14. Found it! In “Madness of The Angels”, around 640 page (hated Kindle) there’s Second Interlude. Swift “baptised” Dana Mikeda and after she wakes up, there’s the dialogue:

    [..."How old are you?"
    "Twenty-eight," I replied honestly
    "You look, like, older. Sorcery do that for a guy?"
    "No, this is just my lived-in face"...]

    At the same scene Dana says she’s 22 years old

    After that scene couple of years had to pass – according to the story teaching Dana, being aprrentice and stuff, then being dead (2 years) so I would assume that Mathiew is 35-40. That suits me. Please, keep producer out of the “Twilight” saga, it would kill the niche :)

  15. Matthew seems like an older brother, someone who has a sibling ten years junior.

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